TORONTO – Maybe the would-be assassins didn’t recognize Robert Barletta as he walked up to the home in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
Perhaps they thought the alleged outlaw biker and accused mastermind of a multimillion-dollar sports gambling ring would be wearing Hells Angels patches, red-and-white gear or some other flashy clothing.
But the founder of London’s Hells Angels chapter was sporting white sneakers, grey pants, a grey long-sleeved shirt and a black baseball cap as he passed the black Audi that had been parked on Ontario Street, just south of Gerard Street, for nearly four hours.
Surveillance footage obtained by The London Free Press shows Barletta, 50, glimpse briefly at the vehicle – its engine running and headlights on – before walking past it and up to the red-brick house, seemingly unaware of the pending danger shortly before 7:30 p.m. on March 30.
He unlatches the front-yard gate and is steps away from the home’s entrance when two armed men spring from the vehicle. The first man gets out of the passenger seat and is holding guns in both hands as he runs toward Barletta, who is now out of the frame.
The man fires four shots from the sidewalk before a second man emerges from the rear passenger side and lets off a burst from his handgun while standing in the street.
Both men continue to fire wildly while running backward to the getaway vehicle. Several people in a nearby Beer Store parking lot scatter.
None of the nearly 20 shots fired hit their mark.
But Barletta’s narrow escape shows he has made dangerous enemies and raises questions about why police have been tight-lipped about the incident, say organized crime experts.
“He has some serious problems with rivals in his own group and rivals outside,” crime author James Dubro said of Barletta.
Dubro speculated that the two triggermen were hired guns, a common tactic employed by organized crime groups, including outlaw bikers and the Mafia.
“There are a lot of incompetent hit teams around these days, and a lot of them are not very professional,” Dubro said. “They’re hiring them from street gangs.”
A Toronto police spokesperson confirmed nobody was injured in the shooting that damaged a building.
A vehicle with multiple people inside fled the scene, but no arrests have been made or arrest warrants issued for suspects, Const. Jenifferjit Sidhu said. “Police are still working on this investigation, it is still active,” she wrote in an email.
Police didn’t issue a media release on the shooting – a common practice for cases of gunfire – or make public the surveillance footage in a possible bid to identify the shooters. It has never been seen publicly before being obtained by The Free Press.
“The fact that the cops never mentioned this to the media is very bothersome,” said Yves Lavigne, the Canadian author of several books on the Hells Angels.
Putting out details of the shooting and releasing the surveillance video would show area residents that investigators are taking the threat to public safety seriously, he said. “That’s how you identify people. You get tips.”
Multiple residents on Ontario Street in Toronto, all of whom spoke on condition their names not be published amid fears for their safety, said investigators told them the shooting targeted a man who is known to police and had recently been released on bail.
Two police sources told The London Free Press that Barletta was the intended target of the shooting.
He’d been staying with his niece at the four-unit Ontario Street home, one of the sources said.
Barletta was released on bail earlier this year following his arrest aboard a plane at Pearson International Airport on Dec. 13, 2019, as part of Operation Hobart, an investigation into an alleged multimillion-dollar gambling operation that police contend was run by members of the Hells Angels and an alleged Toronto crime family.
Twenty-eight people, including three other Londoners, were charged with a combined 228 offences related to guns, gambling, participating in organized crime and tax evasion in the sweeping investigation that involved 18 law enforcement agencies and led to the seizure of $12 million in assets.
The now-retired head of the OPP’s biker enforcement unit, Anthony Renton, said the two-year probe was launched following a suspected arson on Jan. 5, 2018, at a home in Thornbury, a small town on Georgian Bay northwest of Collingwood. Nobody has been charged.
Property records show the now-destroyed luxury home at 363 Sunset Blvd. belongs to Salvatrice Barletta, believed to be Barletta’s mother.
One week after The Free Press reported that a home at 302 Commissioners Rd. in London was raided as part of Operation Hobart, the house was destroyed in a suspected arson. Nobody has been charged.
Sources linked Barletta to the house and its owner, Habiba Kajan, 44, with whom he’s jointly charged with gun offences and possession of property obtained by crime.
Two months ago, police laid additional charges against Barletta and seven others in connection with Operation Hobart, seizing another $24 million worth of assets.
In total, Barletta faces 15 charges including bookmaking, laundering proceeds of crime, fraud over $5,000 and commission of an offence for a criminal organization.
Barletta isn’t the first alleged biker with connections to the busted gambling ring to come under attack. Hells Angels member Michael Deabauta-Schulde, 32, was gunned down outside a Mississauga gym on March 11, 2019. Four Montreal men are charged with first-degree murder.
Deabauta-Schulde was involved in the online operation that made $131 million in illegal revenues over five years, police allege.
“There’s obviously ongoing violence associated to the outlaw motorcycle gangs. That’s why the multi-jurisdictional unit, the biker enforcement unit, was formed to deal with that,” said OPP Det. Staff Sgt. Scott Wade, who leads the joint forces operation.
“We know we can disrupt, we can even dismantle criminal organizations and outlaw motorcycle gangs, but the violence is still going to be associated.”
Wade directed all questions about the Ontario Street shooting investigation to Toronto police.
ROBERT BARLETTA TIMELINE
2003: Founds London Hells Angels chapter
2008: Police seize Hells Angels clubhouse on Swinyard Street they allege Barletta owns
2012: Famous Flesh Gordon’s strip club in London set on fire in alleged arson
2013: Charged in Platinum Sports Book bust
2014: AGCO revokes liquor licence for Famous Flesh Gordon’s
2016: Platinum charges withdrawn
Dec. 17, 2019: Arrested at Pearson airport, charged in Operation Hobart
March 30, 2020: Survives shooting outside Toronto home
July 30, 2020: Additional charges laid in Operation Hobart
The roots of Operation Hobart go back to the 2013 police bust of the Platinum Sports Book gambling operation, which police say grossed more than $103 million in five years.
Barletta was charged in 2013 with bookmaking and possessing proceeds of crime. But the charges against him were withdrawn in January 2017. Barletta’s co-accused, Gordon Baird, who also faces new charges in Operation Hobart, pleaded guilty to a charge of bookmaking as participation in a criminal organization.
The only legal setback for Barletta, who is known as the Teflon biker because of his clean criminal record, came in 2014, when the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario revoked the liquor licence for his east London strip club, Famous Flesh Gordon’s, because of his outlaw biker ties.
But both Lavigne and Dubro say the attempt on Barletta’s life shows he has bigger problems than his criminal charges.
“Someone found out where he was and sent the shooters there,” Lavigne said. “He only would have told people close to him, so he’s got a rat in his nest.”
Dubro added: “I’m not so sure he’s so secure in the Hells Angels . . . If you’re a loyal Hells Angel, usually you’re protected.
“This is why organized crime is not a good career choice . . . There’s always people out to get you.”